Pratik Sinha has a problem. His system cannot digest fake news. Every time the electronic or social media airs or posts news with a false ring to it, he just can't let it pass. It bothers him like a thorn in his side until he gets to the pain-point and puts out a tell-all on his website AltNews.in.
The tagline of Pratik's site reads - Alternative News and Views in the Post-Truth World. "In a democracy people deserve correct information," says the software-engineer-turned-fake news-analyst.
The Ahmedabad-based AltNews debuted this February with the story of Banaras Hindu University and how it had come under the grip of a vice-chancellor with strong Hindutva leanings. He had reportedly made life difficult for female students with a litany of diktats. Since that story, the site has been on a roll.
A news channel tied itself in knots recently trying to explain why it used a photoshopped seven-year-old image in its prime-time show on the alleged luring of Hindu girls by jihadists. The Union home ministry ordered an internal enquiry after it was revealed that its annual report carried an image of the Spain-Morocco border and passed it off as the flood-lit India-Pakistan border. It was proven that most of the videos of supposed Indian Muslims celebrating Pakistan's victory in the Champions Trophy and circulated ad nauseam on social media were, in fact, of Pakistani origin. All were AltNews exposes.
And in case you were imagining a giant army crunching data, punching numbers round-the-clock and churning out these precious finds, think again. There is Pratik, the lone full-time ranger, and two part-time contributors fuelling the success of this enterprise.
But running a website is not something new to Pratik. In 2013, when his father, human rights activist and lawyer Mukul Sinha was alive, he and his social activist mother, Nirjhari, had launched truthofgujarat.com. The site was meant to highlight the stories of riot victims, fake encounter victims and others. Says Pratik, "What my parents and I realised was that a lot of BJP spokespersons were going on the media and saying that Ishrat Jahan was a terrorist. The mainstream media was not doing a great job. There were so many loopholes in the case. I suggested to my parents that we need to put all the information that we have in the form of legal papers on to a website. That's how we took up other cases related to Gujarat."
Truthofgujarat.com did not quite take off, but for no fault of its own. The idea lived, and resurfaced.
In August 2016, Pratik and his mother participated in the 350-kilometre Azaadi Kooch March or March Towards Freedom from Ahmedabad to Una. The march was in solidarity with the Dalits of Gujarat who were protesting against the atrocities of the upper castes.
"On the fifth day, we were in a place called Botad. There was a sea of people but there was hardly any media presence. Dalits, who form seven per cent of the Gujarati population, didn't seem to matter," he says. The media coverage of the event was negligible but Pratik documented the journey and posted photographs and videos on Facebook and Twitter. And that is when he found himself wishing there was a website where he could host such "ignored stories".
Nevertheless, in the absence of one, Pratik kept posting news items on his Facebook page. He also debunked quite a few fake news items parading as real news. But the impact was minimal. "I noticed that it was all in a bubble. People reading my posts were those who were already in agreement with me on most issues."
AltNews was born of all these experiences and frustrated impulses.
Today, Pratik and his team follow a simple drill. They track social media very closely and also keep tabs on a few prominent handles that have a reputation for carrying fake news as "propaganda items".
It's not always easy. But according to him, his software background helps him find the right research tools. Some sites carry photoshopped images, and a fair bit of work is needed on these. Tracking and calling out fake videos is another challenge. Pratik cites the example of a video of a beheaded Brazilian. It was presented as the beheading of an Indian jawan.
Most of the fake news is apparently generated by Right-wing sites and affiliated social media handles. Expectedly, they come at him in full force when he calls their bluff. "On social media, the manpower behind the pushing of the propaganda plays an important role. And the Right-wingers have the numbers."
But Pratik quarrels with the allegation that his sole focus is BJP and Right-wing bashing. "My ideology is opposed to what PM [Narendra] Modi and the BJP represent, but AltNews is dedicated to exposing fake news. It is as simple as that."
That AltNews has acquired a reputation and recall quality over the last six months is obvious from the number of threats Pratik has received to date. They come and go; some more serious than the others. He adds with a laugh, "I got a phone call by one Ravi Pujari a month after the site was launched. He asked me to stop writing or he would shoot me. It was short and curt." Then, of course, there are all those Twitter abuses.
Pratik does not seem overly bothered. He alerts the police when he needs to. The rest of his mind space is occupied with AltNews expansion plans. Essentially, how and where to raise money. "Have to produce more reportage in areas such as farmer and labour issues. Have to start a Hindi website - most of the fake news apparently gets generated there."
If the volume of maliciously motivated faux stuff being churned out all the time is anything to go by, Pratik has his work cut out for a long, long time.
Just a few AltNews scalps
- Fake video (pic above) titled “Prime Minister Modi on the way to White House. Superb video, Must Watch” shared on Facebook during the PM’s trip to the US last week. According to AltNews, it is a video of President Obama’s cavalcade in San Francisco, recorded in 2010
- Grandmaster Shifuji Shaurya Bhardwaj, a YouTube star known for his inflammatory videos. He had claimed to be a former armed forces man
- The man behind dainikbharat.org, a serial fake news story producer
- Hindutva.info, which passed off a Mexican
- stabbing video as that of an RSS member getting killed in Kerala
- Involvement of journalists in posting of bureaucrats. AltNews accessed a conversation from a leading newspaper’s internal WhatsApp group chat to do so
- Francois Gautier’s claim that Nostradamus
- had predicted the birth of Narendrus (Narendra Modi) in India
- Postcard.news for spreading fake news
- Fake Twitter profiles that defended Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje after she dubbed the lynching of Zafar Khan an unfortunate ‘demise’.